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Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?
Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Halting Repeated School Kidnappings in Nigeria
Halting Repeated School Kidnappings in Nigeria
Briefing 79 / Africa

Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?

Despite some encouraging preparations, huge challenges remain in the short weeks before the April general elections at which Nigeria’s international reputation and faith in its own democracy are at stake.

I. Overview

The April 2011 general elections – if credible and peaceful – would reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, yield more representative and legitimate institutions and restore faith in a democratic trajectory. Anything similar to the 2007 sham, however, could deepen the vulnerability of West Africa’s largest country to conflict, further alienate citizens from the political elite and reinforce violent groups’ narratives of bad governance and exclusion. Flawed polls, especially if politicians stoke ethnic or religious divides, may ignite already straining fault lines, as losers protest results. Despite encouraging electoral preparations, serious obstacles remain. Many politicians still seem determined to use violence, bribery or rigging to win the spoils of office. In the remaining weeks, national institutions, led by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), should redouble efforts to secure the poll’s integrity, tackle impunity for electoral crimes, increase transparency and bolster safeguards, including by publicising results polling station by polling station and rejecting bogus returns.

With Laurent Gbagbo’s attempt to defy democracy in Côte d’Ivoire casting a shadow throughout the continent, the elections will resonate, for good or ill, well beyond national borders. Nigeria’s prestige and capacity to contribute to international peace and stability are at stake. The reputation of President Goodluck Jonathan, the generally favoured incumbent, is at stake too. He took a tough stance for respecting election results in Côte d’Ivoire, and his promise to respect rules for these polls contrasts starkly with former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s “do or die” language in 2007. Jonathan’s victory in an orderly (at least in Abuja) People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primary and subsequent wooing of northern powerbrokers seem thus far to have averted dangerous north-south splits within the ruling party. He appointed a respected academic and civil society activist, Professor Attahiru Jega, to chair the INEC and seems inclined to respect its autonomy, including by providing timely funding for elections. Jega’s leadership offers some protection against the wholesale manipulation of results that blighted previous polls.

But huge challenges remain. Jega carries the expectations of the nation, but – as he emphasises – is no magician. He assumed office only in June 2010 and has juggled much needed reforms against the imperative of actually holding elections in 2011. He inherited an organisation complicit in the 2007 fraud, exposed to manipulation outside the capital and over which the new Electoral Act denies him full control. To his – and the nation’s – credit, a gamble to conduct a risky voter registration exercise seems to have paid off, but its shaky start was a reminder of challenges, even in simply delivering materials around the vast country in a timely manner.

Underlying causes of electoral flaws, however, run deeper than election administration. Stakes are high: the state is the principle means of generating wealth; vast oil revenues are accessed through public office. Extreme poverty makes voters vulnerable to bribes and intimidation. The election takes place against an upsurge in violence, including attacks in Borno, communal violence in Jos and explosions in Abuja and elsewhere. Politicians and their sponsors habitually exploit violent groups and social divisions to win elections, so many Nigerians perceive that upsurge as linked to April’s polls. A number of incumbent governors face bruising contests, and the threat of bloodshed hangs over many states. Security is crucial to electoral integrity, but security forces have traditionally done little to prevent rigging or violence and have often been bought by politicians and complicit. Lower-level courts are often corrupt, impunity is insidious and the rule of law at best weak. No one has been convicted of an electoral offence since independence.

Elections, therefore, traditionally offer Nigerian politicians a choice: respect the rules and risk losing to an opponent who does not; or avoid the political wilderness by rigging or violence, knowing that to do so is easy, and you are unlikely to be punished. Shifting these incentives is essential to holding better elections. Tackling underlying issues – unchecked executives, frail institutions, rampant impunity and inequitable distribution of power and resources – requires reforms of a scope not feasible by April. But by bolstering safeguards, rigorous planning, ensuring better security, acting against bogus results and beginning to convict electoral offenders, INEC and other institutions can at least make cheating less attractive.

Further recommendations are given throughout this briefing, but the following are priorities:

  • To dent the pervasive impunity that drives rigging and violence, INEC must prosecute electoral offenders, including its own staff, security officials and politicians. The police must assist in gathering evidence. Task forces at federal and state level bringing together INEC, public prosecutors and police should be established to facilitate prosecutions. These measures should be widely publicised, with the attorney general and inspector general of police echoing Chairman Jega’s tough language against electoral offences.
     
  • INEC should bolster electoral safeguards to make cheating more difficult. It must plan a transparent, efficient system for collating returns, post results in every polling unit and publish a full breakdown by polling unit at every level of tabulation – ward, local government area, state and federal – and provide party agents, observers and accredited media access to all collation centres. Learning from the chaotic start to voter registration, it must tighten plans for timely procurement, delivery, retrieval and management of materials, with resident election commissioners in each state submitting plans to it well ahead of elections. Temporary staff must be well trained on new polling and counting procedures and permit only those whose names appear on rolls to vote in each polling unit.
     
  • INEC should suspend announcing results where suspicious returns may have affected the outcome, then investigate and, where necessary, repeat the election. Judges on the Court of Appeal and the specially-established electoral tribunals should have the resources and training necessary to adjudicate petitions within the new Electoral Act’s timelines and without interference. But wherever possible, INEC should itself act to avert protracted legal disputes against powerful incumbents.
     
  • State-level security consultative committees should submit detailed plans for federal-level review well before April. The committees should establish links with civil society groups monitoring violence and community leaders able to reduce it. Security forces should deploy based on risk analysis. Training for, and monitoring of, security officials, especially police, should be increased. The inspector general of police should say publicly that security personnel complicit in rigging will be prosecuted – then ensure they are.
     
  • The leadership of all political parties should, publicly and together, commit to respect rules, campaign peacefully, avoid inflammatory identity-based rhetoric and use only peaceful, legal means to contest results. Candidates at all levels, starting with presidential candidates in Abuja and gubernatorial candidates in each state capital, should sign in public ceremonies the code of conduct being prepared by INEC.
     
  • International actors should make clear and in public to elites the implications of another sham election. Diplomats can remind the president that his and Nigeria’s prestige are dependent on him meeting his promises to respect rules, allow credible polls and not exploit state machinery. Chaotic and rigged elections would tarnish the government, undermine confidence in its stability and stall investment.

The bar for these elections seems set at “better than 2007”. That may be realistic, given Jega’s late arrival, the INEC’s internal constraints, the stakes of office, entrenched patterns of rigging and violence and fragile rule of law. But such a modest standard – well below Nigeria’s own regional and international commitments for democratic elections – should not disguise that the choices of elites, not an innate Nigerian resistance to democracy, drive shoddy polls. If the country’s politicians want to meet their citizens’ increasingly desperate aspirations for a free and fair vote, nothing stops them from doing so.

A deserted classroom at the Government Girls Secondary School, the day after the abduction of over 300 schoolgirls by gunmen in Jangebe, a village in Zamfara State, northwest of Nigeria on 27 February 2021. Kola Sulaimon / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Halting Repeated School Kidnappings in Nigeria

Gunmen snatched more than 270 girls from a boarding school in north-western Nigeria on 26 February, releasing them four days later. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Nnamdi Obasi looks at why the authorities are struggling to prevent these mass kidnappings.

The 26 February mass kidnapping was the third in the past three months in Nigeria’s North West or adjacent states. Is the region becoming more insecure?

The North West has been in turmoil for several years. It tends to get less international attention than Nigeria’s North East region (which is the centre of activity for the jihadist group Boko Haram and the site of its notorious 2014 kidnapping of over 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok). But deadly violence in the North West has surged since the emergence of competition between herders and farmers, who have been vying over land resources, and militias allied with both sides. The violence has a communal dimension, as the herders are predominantly ethnic Fulani, while the farmers are mainly Hausa or from other ethnic groups.

As Crisis Group has described, over the last decade, the herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria’s North West has been compounded by the rise of numerous criminal gangs and a corresponding boom in cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, armed robbery of gold miners and traders, and pillage of villages. More recently, jihadist militants – Boko Haram and its splinter groups – have taken advantage of the insecurity to establish a presence and cultivate relations with other armed groups in the region. From 2011 to 2019, this combination of armed groups killed over 8,000 people in the North West’s seven states. As of 2020, their violence had forced about 260,000 people to flee, some into neighbouring Niger.

It is against this backdrop that the recent raids on schools and kidnappings of students have taken place. The 26 February incident in Zamfara state follows a raid on a school in Niger state in January, in which 42 children were abducted (with one killed in the process). These both followed a mass abduction at a secondary school in President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state of Katsina in December, when more than 300 boys were taken. All the children have since been released.

What do we know about the groups responsible for these kidnappings?

The kidnappers are criminal gangs, whom the Nigerian government and mass media refer to as “bandits”. In recent years, these gangs have proliferated across the North West, a region awash with illicit firearms and partly covered by vast forests that are largely unpatrolled by government troops – including the Kamuku forest in Kaduna state, Falgore forest in Kano state, Dansadau forest in Zamfara state and Davin Rugu forest, which spans Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states. Some of these gangs started a few years ago as herder-allied groups but went on to operate autonomously. Many of the gangs are Fulani, but some are ethnically heterogeneous. They lack centralised command structures and generally do not operate like militias. In some cases, they are locked in bitter rivalries with one another, which sometimes degenerate into deadly fights.

Some gang leaders claim they resorted to crime because the welfare of their pastoralist Fulani groups was neglected by successive federal and state governments and their members suffered abuses at the hands of security forces. By and large, however, they do not appear to be motivated by anti-state grievances or ideology. Instead, they have largely raided, extorted and pillaged rural communities, more recently including schools.

Mass abductions of children attract far more national and international media coverage and tend to stir more public outrage.

Why are these gangs targeting schools and kidnapping students?

The gangs hit schools for several reasons. For one, schools are soft targets. They often have weak security, with few or no fences, and guards tend to be few and poorly trained. State and federal security forces are unlikely to be an impediment, as they are stretched woefully thin across both the country and the region.

Secondly, mass abductions of children are a magnet for attention. They attract far more national and international media coverage, and tend to stir more public outrage, than kidnapping adult villagers or travellers on highways. The media glare forces the government almost immediately into negotiations and may result in quicker government concessions to speed up the children’s release.

Thirdly, kidnappers appear to be highly motivated by the concessions they can extract in exchange for releasing abductees, although state and federal officials have repeatedly denied making any. Hard evidence remains slim, but there have been several reports since the Chibok case in 2014 of governments paying ransom, releasing armed group members from detention or agreeing to halt military operations. President Buhari’s recent warning to state governments to “review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles” lends credence to these reports.

What is the impact of these mass abductions on education in the North West and throughout Nigeria?

The attacks pose a serious threat to education in the North West. The region already has the worst statistics for educational performance in the country. Concerns about the students’ safety have prompted governors of six states in the region – Niger, Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Zamfara and Sokoto – as well as Yobe in the North East, to shut some or all boarding schools, particularly in the most vulnerable local government areas, until a semblance of security has been restored.

The attacks could curtail attendance once schools reopen. Already, many parents say they no longer consider schools safe. Many Muslim parents in the North West are sceptical of what they perceive as a Western model of education; it is likely that some won’t allow their children to return. Moreover, given the wider insecurity in the region, the abductions could prompt teachers and other staff to quit and look for employment elsewhere.

Over the long term, the raids on schools aggravate the security crisis in the North West and the country as a whole. The inability of local governments to protect schoolchildren could further erode trust in the government, while making gangs and other armed groups look correspondingly more powerful, and potentially increasing their recruiting potential.

Have jihadist groups been involved in the recent school kidnappings?

While jihadist groups appear to be expanding into the North West, as Crisis Group has reported, there is yet no evidence of their direct involvement in the recent kidnappings. By all appearances, the recent kidnappings seem to have been carried out by criminals seeking ransom payments, the release of arrested accomplices and similar concessions. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of more than 300 boys from a school in Kankara town, Katsina state, in December 2020. But a separate armed group that kidnapped the children released them a few days later in circumstances that remain unclear.

How have the kidnappings and wider insecurity affected public confidence in President Buhari?

When running for office in 2014, President Buhari promised security, tweeting confidently: “We will protect your children. We will protect your wealth. We will make this country work again”. Even before the 26 February mass kidnapping, Buhari was under fire for having failed to fulfil that pledge, given burgeoning insecurity in much of Nigeria. On 17 February, the Senate urged Buhari to declare a state of emergency across the country. Five days later, a coalition of 43 civil society organisations called on Buhari to resign or face impeachment if he cannot resolve the security crisis. (As of 24 February, other groups had joined raising the number of signatories to 68.)

Many Nigerians believe the government is unwilling to confront the security crisis, sometimes appearing to blame ordinary citizens for it.

Buhari shows no sign of resigning, nor is a supportive National Assembly likely to impeach him, but these calls underscore the erosion of public confidence in both him and his government. Many Nigerians believe the government is unwilling to confront the security crisis, sometimes appearing to blame ordinary citizens for it – as when Defence Minister Bashir Magashi seemed to assert that civilians are “cowards” if they do not stand up to armed gangs. Public anger is fuelled by a sense of despair over the deterioration of security across the country. Abdulazeez Suleiman, spokesman of the Coalition of Northern Groups, a civil society network, says the kidnappings have created a situation that is “difficult for absolutely everyone, as we wonder about the future and worry about each other, our neighbours, our friends, our families and ourselves”.

What should federal and state authorities do to stop the mass abductions?

There’s no easy answer. Some state governors, like Bello Matawalle of Zamfara state, advocate for engaging in dialogue with the gangs and other armed groups and offering to trade amnesty for disarmament. Others, like Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna state, firmly reject dialogue and insist on subduing the armed groups. Yet other governors, like Aminu Masari of Katsina state, advocate a combination of coercion and dialogue to persuade criminals and other armed groups to disarm. None of these approaches has yet achieved the desired results and the situation demands a lot more engagement by the federal government.

For a start, it should deploy more troops to the North West to protect schools and other establishments, respond better to attacks there and apprehend armed groups camped in forests. That will require pulling out troops from lower-priority security operations in other parts of the country. The federal government should come together with state governments to develop a common security strategy. Such a strategy would outline the roles various authorities, security agencies, community leaders and other stakeholders can play to protect schools and improve security across the region. Lastly, federal and state authorities should revisit the Safe Schools Initiative the previous administration launched following the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, and enact tighter financial controls to ensure that the initiative’s funds are used to improve school safety in the future.